The Lares trek in Peru

Wake up early in the Lares Valley and the infectious giggles of school children walking the rural miles to class – in wide skirts, colourful capes and intricate ponchos – waft over the mountain air. Later in the day you’ll step aside to let the llama trains pass as they bring sacks of potatoes down the valley to market. Backed by mountain views, these glimpses into day-to-day life are a reminder that unlike the classic Inca Trail, the Lares alternative is one that immerses you in living Incan culture.
A trail to Machu Picchu packed with Quechua culture, the Lares trek weaves a quiet path through one of Peru’s most traditional valleys, where brightly coloured textiles dot the high Andean landscape.
The high-mountain altitude and rough terrain mean that hiking in the Lares Valley is a challenge in its own right, although you’ll be tackling fewer steps than on the classic Inca Trail. It’s also much, much quieter and open all year round with no need to secure a trekking permit months in advance. And with many trekking specialists here supporting reforestation or community development projects, choosing to hike the Lares trails can make real, positive differences to local people.
For Kathy Jarvis, from our Peru specialists Andean Trails, each of the three main hikes to Machu Picchu – including the Lares trek – holds a unique appeal: “The classic Inca Trail is all about following the Inca path, exploring the Inca ruins and hearing the history you encounter on the way. The Salkantay route is about raw nature – glaciers, high mountains and cloud forest. The Lares trek is much more of an insight into high Andean community and traditional culture. It depends on what interests you. If I had to recommend just one out of the three, I don’t know which I’d choose.”

What does the Lares trek entail?

Unlike the Inca Trail, which can only be trekked as part of a group supported by guides and porters, the Lares trek can be tailored privately just for you, or you can choose to join a group departure if you prefer. It is a much, much quieter hike, and given the plethora of routes available through the valley, you’re unlikely to see hordes of other trekkers as you walk.
On most Lares treks you’ll be camping on the outskirts of the small villages in the valley, famed for their traditional weaving, although both lodge-to-lodge and homestay options also exist. Consequently, you’ll spend much more time immersed in traditional rural culture than you would on any other Sacred Valley treks. Your expert guide will be on hand to help ease introductions with the mainly Quechua-speaking communities.
Trekking staff will set up your tent for you and provide simple yet hearty meals to keep you full of walking beans – even cakes, baked over a single kerosene stove high in the Andes, have made an appearance. Most trekking specialists will provide you with boiled water to refill drinking bottles as well, keeping your plastic waste to a minimum.
Mules and donkeys will carry the majority of your trekking kit, leaving you to shoulder a day pack with essentials – waterproofs and water – only. Usually, you’ll leave the majority of your vacation luggage safely stored in Cusco before you set off into the Sacred Valley.

How fit do I need to be?

If you’re of a reasonably active bent, exercise regularly and have some experience of long hikes over hilly terrain, then the Lares trek will certainly be within your capabilities. You don’t need to be super-fit to complete the trek, although the more prepared you are before you leave the more you’ll enjoy the walk. The main challenge comes with the altitude, which builds up to an energy-sapping, lung-busting 4,700m on day two, and altitude sickness can hit even the most in-shape of athletes. Acclimatisation is key, as Kathy highlights: “I can’t stress enough the importance of acclimatisation before you start the trek. There are many options for day walks in the Sacred Valley and around Cusco that can help with this, so ensure you plan in at least three extra days before you start your trek.”

The Lares trek, day to day

The standard trek takes three to four days, with an extra day at the end to explore Machu Picchu. However, there isn’t one set route through the Lares Valley and the wonderful thing about this hike is the variety of options to extend your journey on foot into adjoining valleys, or to the Incan sites below Lares village. A typical itinerary might look something like this:

Day 1:
Depart from Cusco or Ollantaytambo and walk for around four hours to a traditional village deep in the Sacred Valley. You’ll hike uphill through fertile valleys until the snow-capped peaks of the high Andes and the thatched roofed, stone village of Cancha Cancha (3,900m) comes into view.
Day 2:
The toughest day of the trek takes you eight hours over the 4,700m Pachacutec Pass via two spectacular glacial lakes, Suirococha and Yuraccocha. The Andean ibis and Andean geese living here will delight bird-lovers, while the dramatic peaks of Pitusuray and Chicon provide an awe-inspiring backdrop.
Day 3:
Community life takes center stage now as you hike for six hours between the tiny villages of Quisuarani and Cuncani, crossing the high puna over the Huillquicasa pass (4,400m) before descending into the cultivated pastures below. Watch out for rare Peruvian viscachas (similar to chinchillas) among the rocks – and enjoy glimpses into the traditional weaving and farming of daily rural life.
Day 4:
A gentler three-hour trail hike takes you down the valley to the tiny village of Lares. Expect lusher vegetation, and a more subtropical climate as you descend, and a gradual increase in small farms and adobe houses. Enjoy a well-deserved soak in the hot springs before private transport takes you to the Sacred Valley town of Ollantaytambo, where the scenic train to Aguas Calientes awaits.
Day 5:
Take the earliest shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu (5.30am) to explore the site before the crowds descend, and if you’re lucky watch the sun rise over the iconic ruins.

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Keeping it responsible

Unlike the classic Inca Trail you won’t be using porters; pack animals are a much more common form of transportation for Andean treks without the tricky Incan steps that dominate the classic trail. You’ll still want to check that your trekking specialist provides local trek staff with suitable clothing, insurance and food for your hike. And if you’re concerned about the welfare of a mule or donkey carrying your bag, speak up. British NGO Brooke has provided us with a checklist for travelers to ensure the fair and humane treatment of working mules and donkeys.

The Lares trail takes you into the heart of a fragile Andean ecosystem, one that is under pressure from local people and wider climate change. Kathy explains what Andean Trails is doing to help: “We support a reforestation project in the Lares Valley, which works to replant polylepsis trees – known locally as queñua trees. These papery-barked trees only grow at high altitude and help regulate the water balance in the high Andes. They are also key habitats for the tiny bugs and insects that feed a variety of rare and endemic birds – however, deforestation is a real issue. The polylepsis trees are a valuable timber resource for local communities, and over-exploitation plus climate change is threatening these forests and the wildlife that depends on them.”

In the Lares Valley there are a number of community tourism projects too – luxury lodges set up in collaboration with and staffed by local Quechua people. Or, at the other end of the accommodation spectrum, basic homestays with local families that offer an authentic insight into traditional Andean life in return for a top up on the basic income they earn as weavers or farmers.

When is the best time to hike the Lares trek?

The Lares trail can be hiked all year round, however for the clearest views you’ll want to travel in the dry season from May to September. Crowds are rarely an issue on the trek itself, so Lares can be a good option if you want to travel in popular June, July and August – but be aware that Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, Ollantaytambo and other parts of the Sacred Valley will be busy at this time. Nights spent camping will be chilly too, so take plenty of layers for the evening.
While you might catch the tail end of the rainy season, March and April offer lush vegetation and fewer tourists. For Kathy Jarvis, this offers some of the most beautiful – and quietest – trekking experiences: “I try to go to Peru in March or April as I think the valleys and Andes of Peru are at their best then after the rainy season – green and stunning! Plus it is quieter at that time of year than June, July and August in terms of numbers of tourists being there.”
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: McKay Savage] [What does it entail?: McKay Savage] [Day to day: McKay Savage] [Best time to go: Paulo Philippidis]
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